It’s all about connections.
This past month I made it to one of our community gatherings at Beans and Grapes. We started the conversation off with a great list of what’s happening in our lives that’s new and good. On that list were things like:
“I started a new job!”
“I found a home for my iguana!”
“We met my brother’s girlfriend!”
It was all such ordinary, and in its simplicity, beautiful stuff. Then we made another list about why community is important to each of us. That list about blew me away, it was so full of authenticity and wisdom, and it came straight from the mouths of the plain citizens sitting in our tiny semi-circle. The list read something like:
Community is important to me because…
“it’s about being intentional, getting along with others, understanding my neighborhood’s history, potential friendships, makes room for playfulness, anyone can join, when you know your neighbors there are less frustrations, it’s powerful, asks us to be authentic, gets us doing things together, promotes safety, can be unexpected, other people helps us navigate through new things in life…..”
After that, we turned to a new page and made one final list. It was the list of “do’s”. We answered the question, “What can we do now to help our neighbors and communities become more tightly woven, or what have we already started doing?” Again, simple stuff, but powerful actions when the alternative for many is sticking to our comfort zone.
“Joined a book/bike club!”
“Will finally meet the neighbors across the street!”
“This month is dinner at my place with the new neighbors.”
By the end of our time together, one woman looked back on our three lists and reflected, “It really is all about making connections.”
She then admitted, “I had a hard time coming here tonight, I just felt like I had so much other stuff to do at home, I get like that with these gatherings. But by the end, I’m always glad I came.”
Candice chimed in, “Yeah, I have a similar feeling, sometimes I’ll dread having to facilitate, but as soon as I get here I feel glad I came, it gives me energy to be with all of you.”
In my mind I thought, “yep, I can totally relate.” Feeling somewhat ashamed to admit it, I realized how this is such a universal feeling that we all experience before doing something new, or that requires us to step outside of the box.
Which reminded me, of the time I became an English teacher overnight in a city tucked away in the beautiful former Yugoslavia….. I was living in a hotel room above a gas station when I found I’d be teaching a university level class in less than a month, having no prior experience or a clue about teaching. Here’s that story.
- part two -
First comes dread.
It gripped me right before class. Utter, complete, total dread. I would pace around my apartment, shoving random pens and notebooks into my teacher bag, all the while talking myself into going. I would see the 4 dozen eyeballs staring at me in my mind. I was to stand in front of 25 students and perform, poised, calm, informative – the way a teacher does.
“Perform what!?” I would huff to myself, exasperated, still packing random pieces of chalk and extra tissues into my increasingly heavy teacher bag. “I’m not a teacher! What do they expect!?”
I was there on a ten month scholarship, one I applied for (admittedly) so that I could travel back to the Balkans – a place I fell in love with as a study abroad student in college. Winning the scholarship meant an all expenses paid adventure, in exchange for my assistance at a local University in Štip, Macedonia. How hard could that be? Reading the oral exams, helping grade essays, lending a hand here and there while the teacher made the lesson plans and did the lecturing. I would simply – assist. The rest of the time would be me traipsing around a new place with a map and some bus tickets, with not a care in the world.
As soon as I realized that being a teaching “assistant” meant something quite different, the dread began to sink in. My first interaction with the teachers I was there to assist felt like a bless and release. They told me I’d be working in 5 classes, with 20-30 students per class. I’d was to hold the students attention for 2 hours with lessons on writing and speaking. Each teacher was generous with their advice, they gave me papers, workbooks, and various materials to work from, but in the end I was completely unprepared for what was to come.
I had a month to prepare before classes actually started. I started by pouring over the worksheets and scribbled notes I took during our crash course on teaching all the grantees got in D.C. during our orientation. Then I used Skype to call my sister, who was a teacher at the time in Korea, and rambled, vented, and generally dribbled on about how I am totally not a teacher, am never going to make it through the school year, and pleaded with her to impart on me everything she had learned about teaching during her first 5 years in the profession.
She tried her best to listen and calm my nerves. In the end, the best teacher advice she gave me was to have a sense of humor about the whole thing. She recommended I read Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man - so I downloaded it that night on audio and began listening. The book didn’t help me gain any better grasp on what the hell to do in the classroom, but it did make me lighten up a bit. I listened intently to his funny anecdotes on all the times he screwed up as a new teacher. Like medicine, the stories came to me like doses of bittersweet anticipation for my own mistakes to come.
Dread usually had the last laugh though. My gratitude to Frank McCourt, but I think he’d understand I needed more than just a lighthearted perspective to get through my fear of the unknown. So I crossed off the days before the school year began, and figured that once I knew how bad it really was, I could stop being so afraid and at least know what to expect.
What happens if you just show up?
On my first day of class, I took a picture of myself in the mirror. I guess kids these days (wink) call it this a selfie. I guess I thought of it as a mark in time.
“I look like a teacher!” I said to myself. Then I heard it, crawling out of the reflection of myself and into my bones, loud and clear: twisting my stomach into knots, attempting to feed me a better solution than walking out my door, ”Why not stay home? Write an email, you’re sick. Stay, rest. Plan your escape.”
I ignored it. I walked outside my hotel room above the gas station, and made my way to teach. Like anything I’d done before that was new and scary, I knew if I just showed up, if I just made it to class and started teaching, the dread would subside for a bit. It was my mantra: Just show up. Get there. Get out of bed, get out of your door. Just show up.
Eventually, the chalk prints on my pants, the looks I got when I showed up with different colored socks, the hurried walk down the steep cobblestone streets to arrive just on time for class a sweaty, flustered mess, all of that became routine, expected, normal. And despite this, being slightly lost and disheveled, in the midst of it I found myself doing what I thought I could never do. I was teaching.
Doing is a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Out of the impossible rubble that was dread, I emerged a teacher. And from that came camaraderie with the students in the room. I came to know their stories. I learned about their dreams. I heard their opinions on the education system, on Hollywood actors, on the protests happening in Tunisia as the Arab spring grew eminent, and I told them what it was like growing up in the midwest. I taught writing – not by the books, or based on some course material – but what I knew about it.
Transitions, thesis statements, 5 paragraph essays, I knew the basics well enough to begin introducing these concepts to them. Living in a country with a 31% unemployment rate, many felt discouraged, despondent. I wanted to give them something useful. As I got to know their hopes and dreams, I realized how becoming better writers could mean their ticket into grad school, or a job abroad, or maybe more confidence when they became teachers themselves. There was no time to waste, they had their lives ahead of them. My grandiose optimism was met by many unimpressed faces, but in it I had found my drive, and I had found purpose in my teaching that would take me to the end of the year.
Out of my comfort zone, away from the norm, as messy as it may have felt at the time, in the middle of the chaos I found myself focused on what was tangible. Then, the unexpected bonus happened – and that was watching the true writers in the class coming out of the cracks in the chaos.
Dread never tells you about the unanticipated goodness to come.
One guy I remember, his hair gelled, his jacket a crisp leather, his attention in class that of a cactus. The first time I read his essay I had to check the name twice. It was written in such a voice, authentic, captivating, I found myself chuckling at certain passages and leaning in to read more closely others. Just like his personal style, his presentation on the page said, “I don’t give a fuck.” He’d turn it in late, without excuse, in hardly legible handwriting, and ignore me the rest of the class unless he had something snarky to say.
I decided I’d read his essay out loud one day. I prefaced with, “Darko has a secret, and he doesn’t want anyone to know this. He is a writer.” I watched as his classmates look at him, then back at me as I read, and some began to see him differently. They laughed. They scratched their heads. I shed some light his way, though he winced at the spotlight.
Another student, who spoke English in a smooth and steady British accent, was absent nearly every class. At first this offended me, and made me feel taken advantage of. But she was a puzzle. When she was present, she challenged the status quo with her comments, she was the most engaged person in the room. Her first essay assignment brought more to the table than I’d expected. She wrote about driving her mom to and from the big city, holding her hand in the waiting room, fighting with the doctors for better answers, while she received chemotherapy. Then, driving back in silence, her mom sick the whole way home, she would make it to class when she could. I realized how life goes on outside of the classroom, and how very important it is to set aside the rules sometimes and just listen to people. Eva has recently started a fantastic blog — you can read here.
Sometimes dreading precludes doing, and that’s okay. In fact, maybe that’s how it often should be.
Would I go back to teaching? I give that question an affirmative: NO. Not because I’d dread it, but because (and teachers, I salute you) I realized I am not cut out for that work, it’s damn hard! But people like Darko and Eva and the 100 other college students I met gave me another piece of myself to discover, through the reflection I saw in their eyes. I did something that scared the crap out of me, and it gave me confidence. I try to make sure now that doing things I dread a whole bunch are on my list of “things to do” at least regularly – if not always. Dread is tricky, it maybe gets a bad rap, because so often it turns into excitement, drive, and motivation. If you think about it, perhaps they are the same thing anyway. Dread – and excitement.